“Con base en lo logrado buscaremos emprender una transformación pacífica y ordenada, sí, pero no por ello menos profunda que la Independencia, la Reforma y la Revolución; no hemos hecho todo este esfuerzo para meros cambios cosméticos, por encimita, y mucho menos para quedarnos con más de lo mismo" -Andrés Manuel López Obrador. June 28th, 2018
In his closing speech during the 2018 Mexican presidential election, when his victory was all but certain, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known by his initials as AMLO) promised that his government would embark on the “Fourth Transformation” of Mexico. The previous three arguably being the War of Independence from Spain (1810-1821), the conservative-liberal civil War of Reform (1857-1861), and the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920).
Almost two years have passed since then, and the “Fourth Transformation” moniker has proved to be partially fitting but for the wrong reasons. As president, AMLO has shown less interest in governing the country than in transforming it. These are not one and the same thing. If the goal of governing is to respond to social demands, the goal of transforming is to find a place in history.
Politicians actively engaged in governing their countries must contend with the most basic of economic principles: that we live in a world of scarcity. This means they need to balance their populist electoral promises with limited budgetary resources.
One way to do this is by prioritizing social demands according to their level of urgency and electoral profitability. AMLO is no exception in this regard. In his first eighteen months in office he has already reallocated vast amounts of public monies to infrastructure projects —a new oil refinery in his home state of Tabasco— and welfare programs to benefit and expand his political clientele —for example Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro, a conditional cash transfer program for unemployed youth. What sets AMLO apart from other politicians is that his infrastructure and welfare projects are not to be seen simply for what they are: limited government responses to social demands. Instead, they ought to be interpreted as signs that his “Fourth Transformation” is moving forward.
Transforming a country is a more benign task for politicians than governing because it releases them from the iron law of scarcity. In time of transformation, politicians put themselves in a time and place where everything needs to be redone and thus resources suddenly abound. This brings to mind Chile’s slogan during its recovery in the aftermath of the 1960 Valdivia earthquake: “Because we have nothing, we will do everything.”
Mexico at the moment is also reeling from an earthquake, of the electoral kind. In 2018 the party system in place since 1991 collapsed, sending shockwaves across the nation. Keenly aware of this situation, AMLO is sparing no expense to establish a new political order: during his first year in office he spent half the government savings accumulated over the past 20 years in the Fondo de Estabilización de los Ingresos Presupuestarios.
Because AMLO is concerned with transforming the country rather than governing it, some of his policy decisions may seem bizarre from afar. Take for example the cancellation in 2018 of the new and partially built Mexico City Texcoco International Airport. Commonly referred to in the press simply as Texcoco, this was at the time the largest infrastructure project in Latin America, and the signature project of former president Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018).
The transformation that AMLO is selling is an utopia: a place never to be found but which is worth fighting for. In so doing we find redemption.
Notwithstanding the public support for completing the project, AMLO decided to cancel the whole thing one month before taking office based on a dubious referendum —in which less than one percent of the electorate participated. By doing so, his incoming government assumed all investment losses and took on a massive debt that uses airport taxes as collateral to pay it down. For the next 20 years, travellers coming and going into Mexico City will pay for an airport that will never be completed. It is now commonly accepted that this decision derailed the economic prospects of AMLO’s government by bringing investors’ confidence in the country to historic lows.
Financially catastrophic as it was, AMLO has pitched the cancellation of Texcoco as palpable proof that the transformation of the country is underway. An epic victory against his nemeses: neoliberalism and corruption. Perhaps epic, but given the massive scale and cost of Texcoco, also pyrrhic and quixotic. But then again, in time of transformation what matters is the here and now, and to make things different regardless of the outcome. “Together we will make history” was AMLO’s campaign slogan, and he is delivering. In his “Fourth Transformation,” different is good and signals history in the making.
The transformation that AMLO is selling is an utopia: a place never to be found but which is worth fighting for. In so doing we find redemption. Like their more senior relative, Revolutions, transformations are open-ended processes that can go on indefinitely, bringing us closer and closer to a new society that neither we nor our children will ever see. Many are eagerly taking part in it, others simply jumped on the bandwagon. However, sooner or later scarcity will show its head again. Time is ticking for the “Fourth Transformation.”
To buy himself more time, AMLO is pushing for a mid-term recall election on his own presidency in 2021 in the hopes of keeping alive the momentum of his 2018 electoral victory. Regardless, eventually the country will wake up to some shocking news: the transformation that AMLO promised is marching victorious, and what better proof of this than the trail of destruction it left behind, and the ruin of the nation’s infrastructure and finances.